It’s perfectly OK if work isn’t your true meaning in life, says S’porean CEO

Learning to distill the things in life that are truly important.

Abel Ang | January 22, 2022, 08:21 AM

COMMENTARY: "Businesses and leaders able to connect with a greater purpose and legacy that their employees desire to leave behind will be the ultimate winners of the “Great Resignation.”"

Writing for Lessons on Leadership, a series hoping to inspire the next generation of Singaporeans through the stories of Singapore’s many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, our contributor Abel Ang shares his reflections on finding meaning in life and work after reading Mark Manson's book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck.

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School.

For the longest time, I refused to pick up Mark Manson’s bright orange best-seller, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck.

In self-righteous indignation, I told myself that swearing in the title of the book was offensive.

But after more than four years on the New York Times (NYT) bestseller list in the “Advice and How-To” category, I started to wonder what I was missing.

At the time of this writing, the book has been on the NYT’s bestseller list for 230 weeks. Currently, 645 people are waiting in line for the 300 digital copies of the book at the National Library.

The book also seems to hold an enduring appeal for millennials and young adults globally, triggering a surge of brightly coloured books with swear words on the cover.

Increasingly, it began to dawn on me that perhaps I was avoiding the book because of its subversive message.

A world of certainty

I grew up in a world where leaders like Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, espoused a “take no prisoners” style towards leadership, where all leaders cared about was ascending to the apex job of their organisations, in a bid to become captains of industry.

This was a world where executives delivered outsized results to their bosses in order to differentiate themselves from the pack. It was expected that you would move regularly to take the next job or promotion – setting aside family and personal preferences for the good of the corporation.

In such a world, weak players are eliminated, in the name of strengthening the enterprise.

That was a world of greater certainty. One where a company did not have any relevance unless it was one of the top two in a particular industry or segment.

Manson’s book essentially shows the middle finger to many of those “certainties.”

The restlessness of today’s workers

For him, “growth is an endlessly iterative process…we don’t go from ‘wrong’ to ‘right.’ Rather, we go from wrong to slightly less wrong.” The goal is to grow as individuals and to be slightly less wrong each day.

This bespoke relativist approach is different from the one-size-fits-all approach of Jack Welch’s world. Instead, it espouses that: “There is no correct dogma or perfect ideology. There is only what your experience has shown you to be right for you.”

Doesn’t such a message capture the ennui of the age? One where we are seeing the “Great Resignation” in which corporations are seeing a tidal wave of employees between 30-45 say “f*ck you” to their current jobs, especially in the industries like tech and healthcare.

In the four years since the book was published, the world has been confronted daily by death, sickness and mortality, wrought by a seemingly never-ending pandemic.

Employees are increasingly realising that the jobs they are in may not be right for them and are choosing to leave for something that is a better fit.

The term “meh,” often used by young professionals, sums it up well. Wikipedia describes it as an interjection used as an expression of indifference or boredom which “is often regarded as a verbal equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders.”

By using the certainty of death as a compass, Manson’s book urges readers to distil the things that are truly important to them in this highly uncertain world.

It is aspects of this type of thinking that is causing a whole generation of employees to reconsider their life priorities and consider the kind of legacy they wish to leave behind when they are no longer in this world.

Therefore, businesses and leaders able to connect with a greater purpose and legacy that their employees desire to leave behind will be the ultimate winners of the “Great Resignation.”

It’s OK to be bored — but you should be clear on the few things that are important to you

Ultimately, and insidiously, contrary to the book’s cover, the secret to living a better life, and to be better at work, is to give a f*ck about a few important things, as opposed to not giving a f*ck about anything at all.

Manson believes that consumers are bombarded by “hey-look-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours” social media, which causes people to become stressed, neurotic and self-loathing.

His proposed solution is a simple one. Don’t take things so seriously. Don’t overthink everything. It is fine to be average. It is fine to be bored with life and to go through suffering and difficulties in life.

Upon finishing the bestseller, some readers have felt a license to let go of unachievable ideals like having a wonderfully close relationship with a sibling that they might be estranged with, specifically mentioned in the book.

These examples of “letting go” and “letting things be” have given readers permission to take stock and move on from unattainable life goals, allowing them to grieve and heal in the process.

For some, it means letting go of the life goal of being the boss of the department they are in. For others, it is the realisation that there is much more to life than work, and their true meaning in life is going to be found outside a world of office politics and backstabbing, perhaps working more with social causes, nature or animals.

A timeless message

As I read through his book, I realized the potency of his ideas.

Part of the magic of the book is that the author can deliver such hard truths peppered with swear words and Jedi mind-bending quotes like: “The desire for a more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me is how the book spoke plainly about life to its readers. Hard truths were not simplified and pureed beyond recognition into aphorisms and feel-good easily implementable mantras. This squarely goes against the notion of young professionals being a “strawberry generation” - easily bruised and unable to take hard truths.

Deeply understanding the subtext and style of the book could hold valuable lessons for those seeking to reach the generation for which the subtle art has become an anthem.

The message that we cannot choose our family, status, and wealth levels is a timeless one. We can only control how we respond and the kind of legacy we wish to leave behind in this world.

Top photo via Thirdman/Pexels.